March 17, 2016

BARELY LEGAL | A Perspective on German Law School

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If you think you want to be a lawyer but also wish you could stay in school as long as a medical student, you might consider studying law in Germany. The German legal education system takes up ten or more years in most cases — all of them filled with eyebrow-raising words like Zahlungsauthentifizierungsinstrumentelesegerät. I’m spending my third year of law school getting a master’s degree in Berlin, and I thought I’d use this column to show some meaningful differences between the German and American legal education systems. There’s a lot of logic in the German system, and American legal education would do well to adapt certain aspects of it.

First, university administration is worlds apart from what we know here at Cornell. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, or that nice and intelligent people aren’t in charge of it — it’s just that there is a much lower administrator-to-student ratio, so administrators simply can’t do as much for you. Matriculation is an example: it involved being shuttled from room to room so that I could receive a piece of paper saying that I was matriculated, and lasted an entire day. In contrast, Cornell’s administration responds to email within hours, and everything as simple as matriculation is done online.

A reason for the difference is that the German State subsidizes the university system, and state-funded systems often have less money than their private counterparts. The inadequate funding means that facilities originally built by the communist East German government still look that way (complete with — and I’m not joking — Marx and Engels stained-glass windows).  On the other hand, German law students do not pay for their education and receive subsidized meals, so they escape the staggering student loan debt American law students know all too well.

Second, lectures are very different in Germany. In most American law schools, professors use the Socratic Method (randomly calling on students). This can be terrifying, but it makes you do your reading and pay attention. Here, by contrast, professors deliver lectures in monotonous two or three-hour chunks of PowerPoint slides. Students who want to get ahead can buy books, but they’re not required. This means that success in a German law school depends to a great extent on individual students’ work ethic. Because the first part of legal education begins at age eighteen, this means that many students need to rapidly disabuse themselves of high-school habits, and it doesn’t always work.

The most redeeming quality of the German system, however, is the practical experience it requires.  To become a lawyer in Germany, you need to do a two or three-year “Referendariat” after your four or five years in school. During the Referendariat, you rotate between different three-month “stations” at law firms, courts, administrative agencies, states attorneys’ offices and similar places. This is something that our legal system truly lacks. The stations cover almost every job in which you could imagine practicing as a German lawyer. This means that people leaving the system likely have a very good idea of the kind of lawyers they would like to be. To contrast, the typical American law student only does two internships, one each after the first and second years of law school. The Referendariat, combined with the two State Exams Germans need to take before and after it, means that German lawyers in many cases are much better prepared to be lawyers when they leave law school than their American counterparts. They’ve simply done the job for a longer amount of time under professional supervision than we have.

Much ink has been shed discussing the need for reform in American legal education.  As many have written, the third year of law school is often unnecessary, and law students likely would benefit if it were abolished in favor of a year of small internships. An exclusively practice-oriented third year, similar to the Referendariat, would reduce the learning curve many encounter in their first legal jobs. If employers were allowed to pay students during that year, students might have less debt and be more inclined to go into public service instead of corporate law. In that vein, it is worth noting that while Germany cannot offer the best facilities or administration, it does not saddle its law students with over $50,000 of debt every year. That is a trade-off that many American law students would be happy to make.

To be clear, the German system is not perfect. Professors are less approachable, and the availability of free education encourages a degree arms race wherein students amass unnecessary LLMs and doctorates. The length of time it lasts — ten years or more — is also excessive. Still, it is hard to escape the impression that German law school is probably a better system for German clients than American law school is for American ones.

Garrett Biedermann is a J.D. candidates at Cornell Law School. Responses can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

2 thoughts on “BARELY LEGAL | A Perspective on German Law School

  1. “This means that success in a German law school depends to a great extent on individual students’ work ethic.”

    I hate to outright attack you like this, but its late and I want to get this over with. You do not express here the way the German education system, especially High School and the University actually works. You also do not express how superior our legal method is in comparision to the rest of the world. I doubt you actually had to write a real German law exam in the form of one lengthy “Gutachten” or have you?

    Firstly: German High School by your standards is a mixture of High School and College. Until a few years ago, Germany had 13 years of primary and secondary education. After that students would typically take a gap year, do obligatory military or social service and then at the age of 20/21, if desired, enroll at a university. However, a politician called Gutenberg got rid of obligatory military/civil service after the financial crisis, to save money. We also shortened High School to 12 instead of 13 years. So that there have been 3-4 years of very young graduates, 17/18 years old. By our standards this is extremely young and you notice. They are the lost generation. That is because our tertiary educational system is designed for adults. Not legal adults, but actually mentally ripe adults. That is the reason why ALL German university programms require students possess real-world like self-sufficiency and why many High School graduates first get a job and real life experience before enrolling with university. It is also the reason, why our university programs are the hardest and most respected in the world. Our students are typically adults with real world experience and level of focus. Our universities are not a kindergarten. Now, German law school… Well, I dont know wheter you have understood this yet, but in our exams we get a case question and then not just deliver some kind of advice or anything. We actually have to test for claims and solve the case with mathmatical like precision. Like this for example: A buys a car from company B, 5 months late the car breaks down and crashes beyond repair. A specialist concludes that the crash was due to a manufacturing error, but cannot exclude the possibility that A just had a bad driving style and caused the breaking system to fail, A wants his money back and buy a new car. What can A claim from B? And then you have to write the following, exactly the following, in terms of grammar and meaning, so well you can deviate, but at you need to be comfortable at legal writing, otherwise you end up writing illogical crap: I. A could have a claim against B for refunding the purchase price out of §346 I S.1 BGB vis-a-vis in return for the car (§348 BGB). For a to be able to make this claim, he must have a cancellation right. Here the parties have not agreed to a contractual cancellation right. A could however only have a legal cancellation right out of §§ 437 I alternative 2, 323 I, 326 V BGB. For A to have a legal cancellation right, A and B, however, must have concluded a valid contract, §§433, 437 BGB. A and B have concluded a valid contract, §§130 and following, 433 BGB. However, in order to engage his legal cancellation right, the car must have a defect in the sense of § 434 I BGB. According to § 434 I, II BGB a good has a defect if its properties deviate negatively from what it was initially agreed to have or otherwise what such a car would under usual circumstances have. In the present case the car broke down after A purchased it from B, it therfore has a defect. However, according to §§ 434 I, 435, 436 BGB, the good must have already had a defect at the time the good was handed over to the purchaser. This is problematic, because we cannot identify whether the defect here was due to a defect that was already present before the purchase was made or wheter the defect occured after the good was handed over to the purchaser. However, according to § 476 and following BGB, the seller bears the burdon of proof to show that such a defect had in fact arisen after the good was passed over to the purchaser and is not his responsibility. For § 476 and following to be applied however, we must have a consumer contract, i.e. a contract between a consumer §13 BGB and a busines § 14 BGB. Here A is a consumer and B is a business. §476 and following can therefore be applied. Also, the seller bears the burdon of proof to show that the defects cause arose after the good was handed over. It is therefore presumed that the good had a defect in the sense of §434 I at the time it was handed over to A in the sense of § 435 BGB. However, according to § 323 I BGB, A must afford B the opportunity to cure his error, before he can evoke his legal cancellation right. This would mean that A could not evoke his cancellation right, because he hasnt affored B a chance to cure his error. However, according to §323 II S.1, A can ommit to do that in case the good concerned has been destroyed or it is simply not possible to cure the error. Here the car has been destroyed beyond repair, so that A does not have to afford B the chance of curing his error. A can therefore directly evoke his legal cancellation right out of § 323 I BGB. To evoke his cancellation right A has to issue a declaration of intent to cancel his contract with B. A has declared that he intends to cancel his contract. A therfore has met all necessary conditions to cancel his contract and ask the purchase price be returned to him (§ 346 I BGB). However…..

    Alrighty then…. I just came here, coz out of interst i looked at Harvard mock law exams. And oh my god, i wished we could just, well… write the answer down instead of this linguistic maths acrobatics… In simple example as the one above its cool, but the real stuff is just overbending your mind, because you are into it so deeep, like A is given, if Y is C, Y is C if D is E, However D is E only if Z is U or K, Z is U if U is P or Z is K if K is N. Here N is not K. But P is U, so that U is Z and that E is D. Therfore then C is also Y and as a result A is given. When your working with abstractions of social situations over many many pages, this is pure mind fuckery.

    You know German law school grading? Thats points 1 up to 18. You need 4 points to pass. 4 points is 56% correct. However, at most law schools only 50% of the students get 4 points and higher and only 5% get 9 points and higher which requires that more than 69% of your answer is correct. Only 5% manage to get more than 69% correct.

    Now. You may say this is fucked. But. The reason why we students do it is that we are actually learning a skill that cannot be replaced by wikipedia or a machine. Even though its highly logical, its still dealing with abstractions of morals and social relationships. A machine cannot emulate a human german lawyer.

    So we are going to university with the feeling that we are learning a skill that is just as practical and requring of long training as for example in the case of a mechanic the skill of fixing any kind of automobile is.

    Its a great feeling. I hate people who go to university to learn stuff that is not only useless but also most of the time easy to google.

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